Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Theories of Pie


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a man in possession of a good appetite must be in want of a pie. Think, if you like, that Jane Austen is spinning in her grave, but let me assure that if there is a heaven, then Miss Austen is surely among its residents, and as she was evidently a person of uncommonly good humor and sense, we must further assume that she smiles indulgently whenever anyone paraphrases her, though it is perhaps not unreasonable to think that, at the same time, she gives a small sigh at having lived in an era when intellectual property laws were not nearly so evolved as they are now. In any case, if Miss Austen were not to approve, I feel certain that I could change her mind by offering her a piece of pie, though she might then be prompted to offer a more pronounced sigh at having lived in a time and place where the dessert pie was either uncommon or unheard of.

But it is not, reader, my intent to delve into either culinary or literary history in my current entry. I wish merely to talk a bit about pie, and to offer a recipe. (Jane Austen is on my mind in part because on V.'s recent consulting trip to Ethiopia, he borrowed one of my copies of Pride and Prejudice to read. I cannot help noting that when he had finished it, he bought a copy of The DaVinci Code and read that next. One understands that this is one of those transgressions that carries its own punishment. V. noted that The DaVinci Code was really not very well written and that this shortcoming was particularly evident after having finished Pride and Prejudice. It is left as an exercise to the reader to determine how many books one would have to read between the two of them, stepping down a rung or two on the ladder of literary quality with each book, in order for The DaVinci Code to seem not so awful, but one suspects the number is large.)

The first law of pie: pie is good. It is to be fervently hoped that you view the first law of pie as so self-evident that you think it silly of me to bother bringing it up. I am fond of saying chacun a son gout, but if you do not agree that pie is good, I am afraid that I shall have to make disparaging comments about your ancestors. Nothing personal, you understand.

A corollary to the first law of pie: any pie is better than no pie. One hears tales, of course, of pies so bad as to fall outside the scope of this corollary, but as I have never personally encountered a pie where the cook mistook salt for sugar (and, really, if everyone used kosher salt, this could never happen), I prefer to think of it as an urban legend, my deep respect for both Loretta Lynn and Coal Miner's Daughter notwithstanding.

A perfect example of anapestic's corollary appears in the picture at the top of this post. I made many errors in the construction of the pie: I started with overripe blackberries; I made the pie dough nearly two weeks before I got around to making the pie and just left it sitting (in plastic wrap) in the refrigerator for all that time; I started the pie when I really didn't have enough time to do it justice so that I did not let the ingredients sit and get to know each other for any of the half hour that they should have had before I hurried them into the oven (this omission was the greatest of my crimes, and the pies were overly solid as a result -- any pie that relies heavily on peaches should end up with a decent amount of thickened liquid for the fruit to swim around in); because of miscalculation and hurrying, I made a tic-tac-toe top crust instead of a lattice crust; I forgot to dot the top with butter; and I had to leave the house to pick up A. when the pie was midway through cooking, so I had to make my best guess, set the timer, and tell V. to turn off the oven and leave the door ajar when the timer went off. Really, I should be embarrassed, and I am, to a point, but when all was said and done, I still ended up with something very good because, well, it's pie. As is my usual practice, I give the recipe as it ought to be prepared rather than exactly as I prepared it.

Peach Blackberry Pie

Enough pie dough for two lattice-topped pies.
Fresh peaches, about eight
One quart fresh blackberries
One cup sugar
1/4 t. salt
1/2 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 cup tapioca
2 Tablespoons butter

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Bring a medium saucepan of water to the boil on top of the stove.

Put the peaches, one or two at a time, in the boiling water for thirty seconds. Remove with a strainer, and run under cold water until they can be handled. Remove the pits and peels of the peaches and slice them. Continue until you have about six cups of sliced peaches.

Combine the peach slices, blackberries, sugar, salt, and cinnamon in a large bowl and mix. Let sit for about a quarter hour, stir in the tapioca, and let sit for another quarter hour. Begin working on your dough.

Line the bottoms of two 9-inch pie plates with dough. Put half of the fruit mixture into each, then roll out your remaining dough, cut strips, and top each pie with a lattice crust. Cut the butter into bits and distribute the bits evenly over the parts of the top of the pie where there is no dough.

Bake at 425 for fifteen minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake for another 35 to 50 minutes, or until the juices are making thick bubbles and the crust is deep brown.


I got these particular peaches at a local pick-your-own, and they're pretty nice, though one or two of the eight wasn't perhaps as ripe as it might have been. The pick-your-own folk told me that I should pick the peaches firm ripe and let them soften over the next one to three days. This is probably generally sound advice, and the ripe peaches are very nice, but in a perfect world, I'd have picked truly ripe peaches and hurried home and made the pie. In my world, however, I had about ten spare minutes on Saturday between dropping the girls off at their music lessons and going to pick L. up from a birthday party and then having to put her hair up in a bun for her ballet recital and then taking A. to have dinner with a friend, so I was pretty much just looking to fill my bag with the first reasonably ripe peaches I could find. A similarly rushed Monday evening was the only time I had to actually make the pies, and while pie making is a lot more fun when you take your time (doughcraft, in particular, is not something to rush), we still come back to the fact that some pie is better than no pie.

The second and third laws of pie are more mathematical in nature, though the expression of the laws as a formula is left as yet another exercise for the reader. The second law: as the number of pies increases, the marginal labor involved in making the last pie decreases. The third law: as the number of pies increases, the marginal satisfaction derived from the last pie increases.

What this means, in essence, is that making two pies is not much harder than making one pie. Contrariwise, the satisfaction derived from two pies is more than twice the satisfaction derived from one pie. You don't have to be as much of a math whiz as I am (it is to laugh) to understand that the combination of these two laws indicates that the ratio of satisfaction-to-effort skyrockets as the number of pies increases. Unfortunately (or not, depending upon one's point of view), the second and third laws of pie are subject to real world limitations so that while, in theory, making eight pies is roughly two orders of magnitude better than making two pies, in practice, one is likely to be limited by the size of one's oven, the number of pie plates one possesses, or the number of available people hungry for pie, though, really, if you can't find people willing to eat your fruit pies, then you may very well be living in early Victorian England, in which case I'd appreciate you putting in a good word for me with Miss Austen.

1 Comments:

Anonymous lindy said...

What is it about pies that makes a person inclined to the making of rules, and the laying down of laws? I think it has something to do with the fact that homemade pie is so good that it can make you a bit frantic.

I am always thinking about my next pie when I am eating my latest one, I want to make sure I can have another one equally good..that this bite is not my last. Maybe that's just my personal weirdness, but you are certainly not the only cook who has rules, rather than merely recipes, for pies.

10:14 AM  

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